When I started my career in writing in 2010, I was constantly on the lookout for easy ways to make money online without actually having to make an investment. I’d read advice from so-called seasoned online freelancers who constantly preached that you had to spend money to make money, but I didn’t want to listen to them.
This was the height of the reign of the content mill, so my stubbornness worked for a while. I found companies to hire me even though I didn’t have a website of my own. I found courses that would teach me how to do business online, and I had PayPal—which didn’t charge me a penny if I was willing to wait a few days for a bank transfer.
But then, those content mills started crashing. Suddenly, assignments started drying up, businesses started closing, and entire websites started shutting down. Just a year later, I was out of luck—and paying assignments.
I’d landed a job doing data entry at a local nonprofit, but the tedium of that job made me realize instantly that I did not want to be doing that kind of work forever. I knew I had to kick my freelance career into high gear if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and, in turn, get serious assignments. So I shopped around and made my first ever investment in my business: website hosting.
I forget exactly what the deal was, but I bought my first domain for around $10, and one or two years’ worth of hosting from BlueHost for less than $200. I used a free WordPress template to design the site, and just like that, I was in business.
Since then, though, I’ve really learned the value of the advice that you need to spend money to make money. (Or in more specific terms: if you want to grow your business, you need to make wise investments in resouces that can teach you how.)
In 2015, I spent $4,598.58 in business expenses. That’s a far cry from that $200 that I finally broke down and spent in 2011. But every single penny has paid off, and so far this year, I’m already up to $3,673.33.
So yes, as a freelancer who is successfully able to book five-figure months, I now spend thousands of dollars on my career in writing every year. But where does it all go? Here are the five major areas I spend money on to make sure my business (and my income) keeps growing:
In February of this year, I found myself with enough client work to pay my bills—but not much else. It was depressing and frustrating, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what to do to book more work. I was sending out pitches left and right, responding to job ads for what looked like higher-quality clients, and asking my current clients for referrals.
But nothing was panning out. I felt desperate, and I hated it.
I realized I had a client who had been a business coach a couple of months earlier, so the idea of hiring a coach to help me grow was already planted in my head. And since money was tight, I found an affordable way to do it: I joined a group coaching program that was led by people who’d been in my position before and who’d figured out how to easily get booked solid with more work than they could handle.
I’m still a member, and it costs me $89 per month. Within two months, I’d gone through the program material, attended almost every group call to get my questions answered, and had more work coming in than I knew what to do with. It was worth every penny.
As online entrepreneurs, there’s sometimes a sense of shame attached to taking multiple online courses. I guess it comes from all the cheesy people out there trying to create sub-par courses with a bunch of empty hype to make a quick buck.
But honestly, taking online courses from entrepreneurs and fellow freelancers I admire has been some of the best money I’ve ever spent. They cut through most of the generic drivel you read in blog posts giving freelancers business advice and get right into the nuts and bolts of how to do the exact things that will grow your business significantly and sustainably.
To date, I’ve taken courses to improve my copywriting, learn blog strategy and DIY design, and improve my communications with freelance writing clients. All of these courses cost hundreds of dollars, so the totals add up rather quickly. But honestly, I can’t imagine where my career in writing would be today without all this knowledge under my belt.
Right now, I’m taking a course that’s teaching me how to launch my own online course. It’s the most expensive one I’ve bought to date ($200 per month for 12 months), but I already can’t wait to see what the ROI of it will be.
I invest in these courses because I wasn’t born knowing these things. I didn’t take a single business class in college, and business systems do not come naturally to me. So paying to have someone who’s already figured it out teach me how to reach my own level of success makes a lot more sense to me than wasting time trying to figure everything out on my own via trial and error.
I started paying for a monthly subscription to Freshbooks after I sent one invoice that looked so completely unprofessional it was embarrassing.
Plus, once I realized it would pay for itself with access to PayPal Business Payments (only $0.50 per invoice), it was a no-brainer. After all, the price is only $19.95 per month for up to 25 clients (which is plenty for a single freelance professional).
Now, I’m literally spending money to make money by cutting PayPal fees, and I have the confidence that every single invoice I send out looks incredibly professional and makes payment easy for my clients.
In April, I wrote about how I used a CRM program for one month to stay on top of my network and how that affected my project referrals. It worked well, and needless to say, I’m still using a CRM—though I’ve switched from the one I was using when I wrote that article.
As with most cloud-hosted software services, I pay a monthly subscription fee to keep my access to the software, but since I only pay $15 per month, it’s totally worth it.
This isn’t something I would have thought to invest in on my own, but I ended up doing so at the urging of my business coach. I was a bit skeptical at first, but figured if it turned out to be a flop, I’d only be wasting $35. (The monthly price of the first CRM I tried.)
From making sure I stay on top of my network communications, I’ve gotten client referrals, speaking gigs, and more email subscribers.
The resources above comprise the most expensive investments I make on a recurring basis. And by definition, they’re also the ones that have the largest impact on my business’ success and profitability. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t at least mention some of my cheaper expenses that help keep my business ticking along. Some are just minor investments, and some are really cheap investments that pay off in big ways. Things like:
The point is, there’s always going to be something in business that you’ll need to spend money on—even if you are just a business of one.
So while the “you have to spend money to make money” line is a little over simplistic—it’s more nuanced than a $5 in, $50 out system—for me it’s definitely been true.
As humans, we invest our resources in things that are important to us: a place to live, food, our relationships, and so on. As a business of one, it only makes sense that you’d also invest some of those resources into the source of your resources: your business and expertise.